'The Voice' recap: Knockout steal knocks it up a notch

Since they were introduced in season 3, the knockout rounds haven't exactly been the most exciting part of "The Voice." Lacking the button-press suspense, friendly coach sparring, nifty spinning chairs and snazzy "I want you" stage lights of the blind auditions, the weird competitive-duet tension of the battles, and the immediacy of the live shows, the knockouts have felt more like a formality — an underwhelming if necessary way for the coaches to do a little final weeding before taking their teams to the live shows.

This season's addition of the coach steal, which has done so much to liven up the battles in recent seasons, to the knockouts, which kicked off on Monday night, has helped, giving the coaches a greater stake in the performances of singers on other teams, creating some welcome friction in the red-chair zone and compelling us to pay closer attention as well.


"A complete game changer," Christina Aguilera called the knockout-round steal. Aguilera's assessment may have been hyperbolic, but fellow coach Blake Shelton, for one, did his best to maximize the dramatic possibilities of the round's new twist.

On Monday night, as the teams began to solidify, with contestants on the same team paired off to compete, with a solo song of their own choosing, for a slot on the live show, every time another coach moved to steal, Shelton did so, too. The game was on.

The first steal went down straight off the bat, in the night's first matchup, between Team Christina's Amber Nicole, who showed off her vocal power and onstage sass with Jesse J's "Mama Knows Best," and Josh Logan, whose appealing tone was on full display with Stevie Wonder's "Living for the City."

Aguilera chose Logan to advance, and Cee Lo Green quickly moved in to steal Nicole, followed shortly after by Shelton. Verbal sparring between Green and Shelton ensued, with Green irritatedly sniping that Shelton's team lacked talent. Green got the girl, but Shelton got in the last word. "When I'm holding the season 5 trophy in my hand, I'll be sure to let Cee Lo know what it feels like to win with absolutely no talent," he said.

Green matched up two "strong female vocalists" — high-kicking rocker Kat Robichaud and Monika Leigh, whom he had stolen from Shelton during the battles — to see which would give "the most show-stopping performance," he said. Robichaud sang Alanis Morissette's "You Oughta Know," seeking to showcase her way with "ballsy, female angsty rock and roll," complete with leather pants, trademark kicks and a startling end-of-song knee drop. Aguilera, who isn't even her coach, gave her a standing O. After Robichaud's crazy intensity, Leigh's sultry vibe on "Hit the Road Jack" seemed kind of dull.

"I don't think we've ever had two more talented, sexy girls on the stage at the same time," Shelton said appreciatively. But Green could advance only one talented, sexy girl and he chose Robichaud. No one — not even her old coach, Shelton -- opted to steal Leigh.

In one of the evening's more surprising knockouts, Team Blake's Holly Henry, who impressed in the blinds, turning four chairs, and then was barely shown during battles, faced off against Nic Hawk, a compelling performer Shelton stole from Adam Levine during the battles. Shelton wanted to see which of the two would imbue their song with their own particular style. Henry gave an uneven, if heartfelt, performance of Radiohead's "Creep," making the final lyrics  -- "I don't belong here" — seem to ring all too true.

Hawk's playful take on Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle" (a bold choice, performing one of the coaches' songs, it was agreed), on the other hand, rubbed everyone the right way. He advanced, and Henry went home unstolen — "Great in the blind … a little shaky ever since," Levine summed up -- but not before collecting a few encouraging words from Aguilera, who has seemed kinder and gentler this season, perhaps having lost whatever chip she may have had on her shoulder along with those excess pounds.

The matchup between Team Adam's Ashley DuBose and Tessanne Chin promised to be a big, booming battle, but it turned out to be woefully one-sided. DuBose, seeking to show off a lighter side of her voice, failed to make much of an impact with her self-conscious turn on "Hey, Soul Sister."  Chin, meanwhile, blew the place up with her ultra-strong take on Kelly Clarkson's "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You)" and earned a standing ovation from her coach. Aguilera said she not only made it sound "easy" to match Clarkson, but took the song to "a whole other level." Levine chose Chin to move on.

Briana "sister of Kaley" Cuoco faced off against pageant consultant and hairstylist Shelbie Z, both hoping to impress their coach, Shelton, with their passion. Cuoco, whom Shelton had chosen during the battles, also wanted to show off her "rock side" with "Don't Speak," but the song defeated her. Then Shelbie Z really trounced her with a coquettish and confident performance of "Last Name." Shelton, advancing Shelbie Z, said she'd "flat-out" outsung Cuoco. No steal.

The terrain was only slightly more even in the Team Adam matchup between Grey and James Irwin.  Grey showed off her silky tone and storytelling skills on Kelly Clarkson's "Already Gone." And while Irwin gave her a run for her money with the Script's "Breakeven," turning in what may have been his best — most consistent and compelling — performance to date, Grey had successfully proven to her coach, Levine, that she had what it took to win. She may not yet be at the tippy-top of the heap, Levine said, "but she easily could get there."

In the night's penultimate pairing, Team Christina's Destinee Quinn, the biker bar singer, competed against Olivia Henken, the serial competition entrant who, Levine has suggested, looks like Shelton's wife, Miranda Lambert. Quinn seemed to push too hard with "See You Again," and the coaches — apparently less distracted than I by Henken's sparkly hot pants --  didn't seem to think Henken's performance of "You're No Good" was all that good either. Shelton said Quinn was consistently flat, and Henken was sharp throughout. Weighing each performer's flaws, Aguilera hemmed and hawed and sent Quinn back to her biker-bar gigs. She said Henken had "just a little bit more skill."

The final battle of the night was between two long-haired dudes who like hats, Team Cee Lo's Cole Vosbury, who made a splash in blinds by singing the theme song to "The Jeffersons," and veteran Jonny Gray. Vosbury chose to sing the Passengers' "Let Her Go," accompanying himself on guitar. Gray went with a far more familiar song, the Beatles' "We Can Work It Out." Both performed impressively — and the coaches' preferences were split, with Shelton voting for Vosbury, Aguilera for Gray and Levine pledging to steal whichever singer Green passed on. Green chose Gray to advance, opening up Vosbury for a steal.

Levine made good on his promise, pushing his button for Vosbury straightaway — but Shelton pressed his button, too. The coaches tussled and made their cases. Shelton's was stronger: His vow to help Vosbury figure out where he wanted to go as an artist and help him get there caught the singer's attention. "What Blake said really spoke to me, really resonated with me," Vosbury said, becoming the newest member of Team Blake.

More knockouts on Tuesday night. What did you think of the first batch? Are you ready to call a winner?